Freaky Fortnight

What I Now Have in Common with Jay-Z

What I now have in common with Jay-Z.

When I got off the train this morning, I checked e-mail on my phone and saw this note:

From: Michael Agger
To: Susan Burton
Date: Thu, Oct 8, 2009 at 9:30 AM
Subject: One thing about your dispatch todayMaybe you should write some specific things about my job—how much work it is—so people don’t think I surf the Web and drink coffee all day.

Fair enough. Like Mike says, his job is a lot of work.

Let’s do an office tour. We’ll begin in the lobby, where the security gate abruptly closed on me yesterday afternoon. The black bars smacked against my leg; I felt like a klutz, but it also kind of hurt. When I told Mike about the incident, he said I was in good company, because the same thing once happened to Jay-Z. Yes, that Jay-Z: The notorious hip-hop radio station Hot 97 occupies the seventh floor of this building. It has its own elevator. I picture it like the Wonkavator, an elevator that will take me not to another floor but to a raucous, thumping, gold-plated party in the sky.

Mike’s floor—Slate’s floor—is more sedate. Or, more accurately: It is the sound of silence. The phones never ring. Really, never. On Monday, I asked Mike what I should do if somebody called, and he said, in a way that seemed ominous, “No one will call.” Aside from the hazing voice-mail his boss spooked me with on the first day, this has basically been true. The reason nobody calls is because they’re all using e-mail. I used to pick up Mike’s phone and see a crazy number of unread messages superimposed on his mail icon, such as 174. Now I know why. Mike’s co-workers e-mail about everything. The e-mails feature numerous aliases and codes: “CE” and “top” and “TAPS” and the cell phone numbers of the members of a SWAT team that slays vampires during the night.

As far as the actual work: It’s not just me sitting here writing earnest dear-diary posts about my woes. I am doing Mike’s actual job, which today meant attending a meeting, writing a blog post, and editing three pieces. The editing is not hard. The writers are totally amazing, and so far, no one has filed in “reverse Polish notation” (as someone jokingly threatened to yesterday). But I don’t want to make any mistakes; things take me a long time. And when things pile up, I’m not experienced enough to know what steps I can skip or what parts of the process I can modify. When things get hectic at home, it’s relatively easy for Mike to come up with workarounds on the fly. If there’s no protein in the house, he can fill Nick’s lunchbox with crackers; he can solve the laundry crisis by reusing unwashed socks.

But enough about Mike’s job, because I have to finish this entry.

Which is actually not supposed to be about office life. Today I’d intended to write about a novel called The Home-Maker. The Home-Maker, written in 1924 by Dorothy Canfield Fisher—an educational reformer and author of numerous books, including the children’s classic Understood Betsy—describes a husband-and-wife switch.

Lester Knapp is a tortured poet hunched over a back-room desk at a department store. His wife, Evangeline, is shrewish, depleted, and physically suffering (she has eczema) from her time at home with the kids. When Lester is paralyzed in a freak accident, Evangeline shows up at the department store and wrangles a job in Cloak-and-Suits. Work, Evangeline discovers, is her true passion; home, Lester finds, is his. The family is permanently rearranged, and everyone—mom, dad, children—blossoms.

I loved reading this book, having an excuse to look at something old—something I would have read in college on a bright, dusty afternoon. If things were pretty different in 1924 for women, they were also different for men: The taboo against stay-at-home-dadhood was profound. This role was regarded with such horror, in fact, that at end of the book, when Lester discovers that he can walk, he keeps it a secret from everyone, including Evangeline. Paralysis: This is the only way it’s acceptable for him to remain at home with the kids. To put it mildly, it’s a disturbing ending.

The book is not a total anachronism; there are elements that are surprisingly contemporary. There’s a work-at-home mother, Nell, who writes ad copy. Another mother serves her family “boughten salad and boughten boiled ham,” and we’re meant to see her reliance on takeout as a realistic accommodation to the modern world. And an entire subplot hinges on Evangeline’s fixation with the “dirt and microbes” on her young son’s teddy bear.

I trust that Mike will pick up this thread about The Home-Maker later tonight. Until then, I’ll sign off, on my way home to see Nick and Will and Will’s own germ-ridden stuffed monkey.